Revisiting ‘All The President’s Men’ on Its 40th Anniversary

Although the detective story tradition dating to Edgar Allan Poe and refined by Arthur Conan Doyle emphasizes “ratiocination”—reasoning toward a solution—most real-life investigations proceed with a heavy admixture of tips.

In All the President’s Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—a.k.a. “Woodstein” in their early Washington Post days—may have relied on Deep Throat, but primarily they exhibited impressive fact-finding skills and dogged persistence. They dealt with recalcitrant witnesses who spoke only on condition of anonymity, and with an overwhelming amount of mind-numbing detail. Weeks before Woodward started meeting in an underground garage with his secret informer [Deep Throat was revealed 30 years later to have been the embittered and disillusioned former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt], the young journalists were already engaged in an incredible amount of deep background digging, following hunches and interpreting the body language and voice inflections of their interviewees. For many, their reporting was the inspirational high point of American investigative journalism.

Of course, “B” and “W” had contacts in D.C. and the press corps, which they acted on immediately after news reports of the June 1972 break-in at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, when checks made payable to CRP (Campaign to Reelect the President) were found on the five burglars. Bernstein, the more experienced of the two, wanted in on the story, which had already been assigned to Woodward, a nine-month rookie at The Post with solid academic and social connections. Their personalities were different (B was a liberal, W a Republican), and there were some competitive sparks at first, but, with the cautious support of Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, they shifted their competition to getting the jump on The New York Times and Time. Many sources with whom they spoke were so fearful; they would identify players only by initials, so that if questioned under oath, they could truthfully say they did not name names. Others, including Deep Throat, would typically not offer information; only confirm “the boys’” statements.

The book still makes for fascinating—and instructive—reading on this, the 40th anniversary of its publication, though it’s probably not as well known as the 1976 film of the same name—Robert Redford’s idea. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, with a screenplay by William Goldman, who said he would do nothing to “Hollywood it up,” it starred Redford and Dustin Hoffman and won four Oscars, garnering more nominations and other awards over time. It’s worth seeing again, but the book also warrants revisiting. Indeed, though the movie takes dialogue verbatim from the book, the book spends more time on what would emerge as the theme: the Watergate break-in was only a drop in a dirty-tricks bucket, whose filthy water was stirred by “plumbers” (led by E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy) who were out to smear the opposition (anything related to Ted Kennedy) and stop leaks. They instituted widespread illegal surveillance and sabotage operations, reporting to the most powerful of “the President’s Men”—John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman and Charles Colson—and along the way co-opted the CIA and FBI.

The movie covers the first seven months of the Watergate investigation and trial. The book goes on to include subsequent hearings, indictments and cover-ups, including Nixon’s infamous 18-minute tape gap and resignations. Written in the third person, as though B and W were objects rather than subjects—a device that turns the story into character-driven narrative and gives it insider tone, conveyed by colorful slang—All The President’s Men allows the authors to include lots of quotations (the index has 13 pages of double-column notes) that dramatically shows the “spreading stain” seeping into the White House (the film nicely amps the drama by way of dark photography and eerie music). Both book and movie could not be timelier, in light of reactions to the Edward Snowden revelations. In fact, on December 3, 2013, Bernstein (now an East Ender) wrote an open letter to the editor of The Guardian about diversionary tactics and “outright lying” by U.S. and U.K intelligence agency personnel who were—and are—lambasting Snowden instead of going after government officials who violate the First Amendment.

All the President’s Men is dedicated to the president’s “other” men and women—those who risked talking to B & W. Nodding to Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 political novel All the King’s Men, All the President’s Men seems darkly prophetic. Few books, even great ones,  endure the passage of time. This tale, based on real events, however unbelievable, certainly has.

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